In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a monumental encyclical relating to the power of hope and the work of salvation. In the work, entitled “Saved by Hope,” the pope emeritus described his close spiritual friendship to St. Josephine Bakhita.
Only in a universal Church could a Bavarian pope with a professorial temperament have a devotion to a Sudanese slave who became a freed Venetian religious sister. Truly, the Catholic Church puts the “multi” in multicultural.
When the Church has the boldness to live her multicultural – that is, her authentically catholic – identity, she is enriched by a diversity of witnesses. She can become the source of living lessons to humanity about human dignity, goodness, hope and joy. The Church’s claims to be a teacher and mother to humanity is made credible by the pluralistic contributions of her diverse members from every tribe, nation, people, and language.
As an example, let’s stay focused on St. Josephine.
Josephine was born to an important family in Darfur, Sudan, in 1869. When she was nine years old, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery. She was abused, mistreated, and sold five times throughout the slave markets in the Sudan. Her life was marked by severe brutality, and her body bore one hundred and forty-four scars from beatings.
In 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant and brought to Venice. There Josephine came to hear about the Lord Jesus. She desired to know more about this good master and loving God.
Josephine received her freedom under Italian law and sought Christian initiation. She understood her earthly freedom. And through that liberty, she was able to rejoice in the spiritual freedom she received in Jesus Christ, who loved her and gave himself up for her. It was in her baptism that this holy woman took the name “Josephine.” She could not remember her tribal name from her youth since slaves did not have names. The slave traders simply referred to her as “bakhita,” which means lucky.
Throughout her life, Josephine would kiss the baptismal font, and tell people, “Here, here, is where I became a daughter of God.” She cherished her vocation as a Christian and sought to reflect its hope and joy in all that she did.
Josephine sought entrance into the convent and became a religious sister. She humbly served the community as a porter and was known for her bright smile and welcoming spirit. Additionally, she shared the painful story of her life to audiences throughout Italy, and helped people to understand the reality and barbarity of human trafficking.
Towards the end of her life, Sister Josephine frequently said: “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know him. What a great grace it is to know God.”
In 1947, when Sister Josephine was dying, she had flashbacks to her days as a slave. She cried out for the chains to be loosened. The sisters comforted her with acts of love and the assurances of faith. Josephine saw the face of her “loving Jesus” as she died consoled in her freedom and in the joy she found in Jesus Christ.
Saint Josephine overcame her tormentors and the darkness of evil. She inherited the earth and was free. She saw the bright hope given in Jesus Christ.
Of course, the pope emeritus is not the only one with a spiritual association with St. Josephine. Pope Francis, an Argentinian with a pastoral temperament, is also very endeared to the Sudanese saint.
Earlier this year, in speaking to government officials around the world, Pope Francis spoke of St. Josephine and drew particular attention to the trafficking of children. The pontiff asserted: “Every effort must be made to eradicate this shameful and intolerable crime.”
Pope Francis described St. Josephine as a “young woman who was enslaved in Africa, exploited, humiliated” but who never gave up hope.
Literally holding up the example of the saint – as he held up a booklet with a photograph of the Sudanese saint – the pope continued telling her story as she became a Christian and joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity.
And so, the life of this powerful saint is one example of the Church’s immense capacity for witness in our world today and of her ability to offer a beneficial contribution to humanity’s struggle with darkness and hopelessness.
Saint Josephine gives us all a scarred and human face to the evils of human trafficking, racial tension, and of the brutality found in the peripheries. Her life demands a response. It gives us an option as it becomes a compelling guide to us of the joy of freedom, the peace found in liberation, and the richness of love and acceptance.